The administration has a big problem on Iran. It has for now successfully fended off sanctions, but in doing so it helped forge consensus about the flaws in its approach and set the scene for a major showdown with Congress when, as everyone but Secretary of State John Kerry expects, Iran refuses to agree to even minimal steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In other words, it has set itself up for failure with no back-up plan.

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 file photograph, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, announce with other senators that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Menendez, whose political career began in a place with a reputation as one of the most corrupt corners of the nation, has often found himself the focus of ethics allegations. To his critics, he's the bad guy who always wiggles away; to defenders, he's a figure who is persecuted in whispers and investigations, rather than findings or indictments. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), right, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) both favor a sanctions bill. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Thursday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), denied by his majority leader a vote on a sanctions bill that would pass with more than 70 votes, explained in detail the administration’s gross mishandling of negotiations. It is worth reading in full, but some portions deserve emphasis. After describing in detail the requirements the administration, the United Nations and former administration official Dennis Ross have confirmed are needed to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran, the New Jersey Democrat summed up the flaws in the interim deal:

Iran is insisting on keeping core elements of its programs – enrichment, the Arak heavy-water reactor, the underground Fordow facility, and the Parchin military complex. And, while they may be subject to safeguards — so they can satisfy the international community in the short-run – if they are allowed to retain their core infrastructure, they could quickly revive their program sometime in the future. At the same time, Iran is seeking to reverse the harsh international sanctions regimes against them. Bottom line: They dismantle nothing. We gut the sanctions.

Directly contradicting Kerry’s assurances, Menendez states:

Since the interim deal was signed there was an immediate effort by many nations – including many European nations — to revive trade and resume business with Iran. There have been recent headlines that the Russians may be seeking a barter deal that could increase Iran’s oil exports by 50 percent. That Iran and Russia are negotiating an oil-for-goods deal worth $1.5 billion a month — $18 billion a year – which would significantly boost Iran’s oil exports by 500,000 barrels a day in exchange for Russian goods . . . Iran’s economy is recovering. . . . Sanctions relief — combined with the “open for business sign” that Iran is posting — is paying returns.

And as for the potential for sanctions at the end of the six months, Menendez states definitively that this would be too late. It is quite an extraordinary assertion — in essence, that barring a miraculous negotiated solution, we’re now in the mode of “containment,” precisely what the president swore up and down he’d never allow:

My legislation – cosponsored by 59 Senators – would simply require that Iran act in good faith, adhering to the implementing agreement, not engage in new acts of terror against American citizens or U.S, property — and not conduct new ballistic missile tests with a range beyond 500 kilometers.

The legislation is not the problem. Congress is not the problem. Iran is the problem. We need to worry about Iran, not the Congress. We need to focus on Iran’s long history of deception surrounding its nuclear program and how this should inform our approach to reaching a comprehensive deal. . . .New sanctions are not a spigot that can be turned off-and-on as has been suggested.

Even if Congress were to take-up and pass new sanctions at the moment of Iran’s first breach of the Joint Plan of Action, there is a lag time of at least 6 months to bring those sanctions on line — and at least a year for the real impact to be felt.

This would bring us beyond the very short-time Iran would need to build a nuclear bomb, especially since the interim agreement does not require them neither to dismantle anything, and freezes their capability as it stands today.

So let everyone understand — if there is no deal we won’t have time to impose new sanctions before Iran could produce a nuclear weapon. . . .

The simple and deeply troubling fact is — Iran is literally weeks to months away from breakout, and the parameters of the final agreement — laid out in the Joint Plan of Action — do not appear to set Iran’s development-capacity back by more than a few weeks. [Emphasis added.]

He concludes, “The concerns I have raised here are legitimate. They are not — as the President’s press secretary has said – ‘war-mongering.’ . . . Iran says it won’t negotiate with a gun to its head. Well, I would suggest it is Iran that has put a nuclear gun to the world’s head. So, at the end of the day, name-calling is not an argument, nor is it sound policy. It is a false choice to say a vote for sanctions is equivalent to war-mongering. . . . The ball is in the Administration’s court, not in Congress’.”

So then, in the estimation of the Senate’s Democratic foreign affairs chairman the interim deal is fatally flawed, a final deal must achieve things Iran has no intention of giving us and it will be too late to pass sanctions in six months. He has in essence accused the president of setting us on a road to containment since the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will not permit a sanctions vote that is the last hope to bring Iran to heel.

I wonder what the point of the speech really was. Does he think Reid will bend? Does he have more Democrats on board to force a vote? Does he think sanctions proponents will say, ‘What a nice speech. He’ll be on the ball when the talks fail“? (But Menendez’s entire point was when the talks fail, it will be too late.)

In six-months, when the talks fail and/or another six-months are declared necessary for a deal, Congress then can try to restart sanctions, I suppose. But Menendez says that won’t be effective. The alternative is accepting a nuclear-capable Iran or an Israeli military strike. The latter is becoming the most likely scenario if Menendez’s assessment of the timeline is correct. Obama will therefore have brought about the one thing he was desperate to avoid — a Middle East war.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.